Sunday, 23 November 2008
Never work with children and animals, runs the old show-business saw. Film-makers might be wise to add to this advice: never make a feature of a catchy song , for it will grow greedy and swallow the film. The history of popular music is littered with songs from long-forgotten films – perhaps the classic example is the song from Hall Bartlett’s Unchained, a pleasant but unexciting flick about a California prison with an enlightened governor, now notable only for the unwitting film debut of Dexter Gordon who just happened to be on hand, and its Melody which became one of the most-recorded songs of all time.
Unchained was made in 1955, the same year that Hitchcock made this remake of his own 1934 film. Presumably he wasn’t completely satisfied with the early version, so you’d expect him to make sure he got it right this time. But The Man Who Knew Too Much doesn’t come easily to mind when you think of the Hitchcock greats. I bet you’d all recognise the song though. It’s as much part of Doris Day as the yellow basket was part of Ella.
This is all rather unfair to a fine film. If it sits in the shadow of North by North West or Rear Window it’s probably because James Stewart doesn’t sparkle like Cary Grant, and Doris Day can’t counter his hapless Ordinary Joe with the same touch of glamour that Grace Kelly could give him. Still, the pair of them carry off their portrayal of an unlikely couple wandering blindly into a net of international intrigue, espionage and assassination with their son – the sort of winsome brat so beloved of 50s American cinema – as the McGuffin. You do have to wonder how an international singing star manages to settle down to a life as mother and wife to a gauche Indiana quack. There’s a story here, hinted at but never explicitly told, which would make more sense if Jimmy were Doris’s shrink, but anybody who thought Doris Day was there just for her voice and were unaware that she could act too would be seriously impressed by the scene in which her husband has her all but begging for her medication.
This is good Hitchcock. The crucial scene in the Albert Hall is breathtaking, real edge-of-the-seat stuff. Will The Man Who Knew Too Much eventually be elevated to its rightful place in the pantheon? Who knows – whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see…
Sunday, 16 November 2008
How do you think you’d fare if you went to Hollywood big shots these days for money to make a critique of the mental health service? You’d probably not be sectioned for it but you might be laughed out of town. Mind you, if it’s the more laid-back 1975 and you have Kirk Douglas and Son behind it, the project had a fair chance. It turned out to be not just a blockbuster but one one of the defining films of its time.
Although to call it a critique of the mental health services is to miss the point. It’s as much a mental hospital story as if… is a ripping boys’ school yarn. It’s a story of its time, and its time wasn’t morning-after-the-summer-of-love 1975, when the Yom Kippur war and the subsequent oil crisis shook everybody out of babyboomer idealism and planted tehir feet firmly in the mud. It’s a film ten years after its time and belongs to those heady days of revolutionary optimism in which Ken Kesey wrote the novel. It’s the tale of the rebel pitted against a calculating, controlling and oh-so-reasonable establishment that crushes the human spirit, and it might have been waiting for Jack Nicholson to come along. If that’s the case it’s certainly no worse for the wait.
It’s also, in a curious way, a love story. Nicholson’s character shouldn’t be in a mental hospital, but he’s an accomplished player of the system who wangles commitment as a way of easing the passage of his short prison sentence for the statutory rape of a girl “fifteen going on thirty-five”. One inside he meets his nemesis in the form of control freak Louise Fletcher who, he realised to late, has made a career out of bringing her charges under her complete control and has the power to detain indefinitely. Oh, how these two need each other! For Fletcher, the wild and wayward Nicholson is a challenge to be tamed and brought under her control. And Nicholson just has to break the ice-cool Fletcher; rumple the perfect hair and soil the crisp white uniform. It’s going to be a titanic struggle, and as with the titanic struggles of the day it’s always likely to end in mutual destruction.
The two leads play it to perfection. Jack Nicholson has been playing Randall McMurphy all his career, but the real tour de force is Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched. Her buttoned down, oh-so-reasonable menace comes across with great subtlety. You want to find a heart of gold inside there, but of course there is none.
Was this the last of the truly great Hollywood films? Maybe not, but Hollywood won’t be making many more of this calibre.
Monday, 10 November 2008
A biography of a distinguished mathematician seems an unlikely source for an Oscar-winning blockbuster. But it’s precisely that aspect, coupled with real curiosity about the work as well as the life of John Forbes Nash, a brilliant but eccentric character (who is still alive so I’d better watch my step), that drew me to it. I never distinguished myself at maths but I penetrated the subject far enough beyond the tedium of the way it’s taught in schools to retain a fascination for it.
What we get is a film that dwells on eccentricity at the expense of mathematics. As a portrait of a man battling with some pretty fearsome devils – Asperger’s syndrome, one assumes, to start with and ultimately a nasty case of paranoid schizophrenia. The central enigma is the demarcation line between what is real and what is Nash’s delusions. By keeping it that simple, it works pretty well as a crowd-pleasing thriller. There’s always the old question to ask about “why now?” Why choose 2002 to make a film which centres on whether or not the threat of terrorist attack on US soil is real or fantasy. Can there be parallels with the real world being hinted at here?
All the same, I get a strange feeling with this film that I’ve seen it all before. These diaries are, for the most part, impressions and not studies. One of these days, though, I’d like to do a thorough analysis of the films of Modern Hollywood (say, post-Jaws), and see just how far each and every big Hollywood production follows the same schema; psychological buttons pushed, emotional strings pulled, all at carefully-planned strategic points. The result is a film that is seductively easy to watch, that draws you right into it, and leaves you afterwards feeling strangely, empty, like a Chinese meal.
What did I learn about John Forbes Nash? Nothing at all, very much, that I didn’t know already. That he was brilliant and arrogant; that like many with an autistic-spectrum condition he could be very charming; that he could make a right fool of himself in public places. Some things I knew about seem to have been carefully airbrushed out, not least his alcoholism and his bisexual promiscuity. Anybody hoping to learn about what Nash actually did would be disappointed. He is best-known for game theory, and this is barely hinted at – after losing a game of Go he complains that Go was a flawed game because he had played first and played a perfect strategic game so should have won (Nash later invented Hex as a game similar to Go that could always be won as suggested.) Any maths heavier than that is hinted as by the stereotypical blackboard scrawl of the geek. Yes, Nash isn’t to be seen as a beautiful mind at all, but as a one-man freak show. Well, what do you expect of somebody so sad as to be a mathematician?
All right. I enjoyed it, and I thought Russell Crowe pulled it off with surprising aplomb. But I didn’t wake up this morning still haunted by it, and I doubt if I’ll remember much about it in a couple of weeks time.
Sunday, 2 November 2008
I used to think of Great Expectations as the Dickens novel for people (like me) who hated Dickens. That was before I discovered Bleak House of course (but then, for some reason, Dickens’s masterpiece was never on the menu when I was a child: if it had been I might have viewed the man more benevolently). Although it contains a fair slice of grotesque caricature, Great Expectations seemed more than any other Dickens to be about moral ambiguity, and thus surprisingly modern.
David Lean managed to tap into this well. Dickens was always going to be a gift to the cinema when it finally arrived, and perhaps because of that pervading sense of moral ambiguity Great Expectations was the novel best suited to the screen. From the shocking moment early on when young Pip in the graveyard runs into the terrifying convict Magwitch, attention is demanded. After that, the story of the rise of young Pip under the influence of the bizarre Miss Havisham and a mystery benefactor unfolds relentlessly towards the inevitable bursting of his bubble. Some parts of the story are missed out, as is the wry Dickens commentary, but they aren’t missed. The only thing that grates is the false happy ending. The story of ambiguity ought to end as Dickens, that consummate wordsmith, ended it. Ambiguously.
Can great novels be made into great films? This is undoubtedly a great film. Maybe it depends on whether you think it’s a great novel or not. I’m inclined to think it is.
Sunday, 26 October 2008
In which Malcolm McDowell reprises the role of Mick Travis, the unlikely revolutionary schoolboy of if…
It’s four years later and Travis is now a trainee coffee salesman with the knack of always landing on his feet. Presumably this natural jamminess is the reason why he is not banged up for mass murder, but all is not what it seems, as we shall see. So, we follow our hero through a series of increasingly surreal picaresque adventures and mishaps from which Travis, however he may be humiliated or tortured, invariably emerges better off than he was before. Until, eventually, he pushes his luck once too often and ends up in prison. But then, as Ralph Richardson remarks at one point, the gap between the House of Lords and Pentonville Prison is very small indeed.
It might easily have been from an original idea by Fielding or Smollet. I believe that the true inspiration was Voltaire’s Candide, and that fits for it is a powerful political satire of its time and one which – thinking of Osborne and Mandelson on the yacht – is just as applicable today even if it dates from the days of Tiny Rowland’s Lonrho and the unacceptable face of capitalism. It’s also hard not to see a parallel with Evelyn Waugh. Travis’s decline and fall is not at all unlike that of Paul Pennyfeather.
This is a big film – over three hours long – and it’s baggy and sprawling, but it’s never dull. Its scale only serves to underline the monstrosity of the corruption and exploitation that it satirizes. There’s also a fabulous soundtrack by Alan Price to hold the attention. Price and his ensemble appear initially as a kind of Greek chorus, stopping the flow to give a detached musical commentary. In a typically surreal touch though, Price and his band become an integral part of the action. (And if that weren’t enough, we find in the closing scenes Lindsay Anderson auditioniong Mick Travis for the lead role in his film if… and at this point we’ve left the realms of Voltaire and Waugh and plunged into the bizarre world of Flann O’Brien.
It’s all quite bonkers, of course, and quite magnificent. A wonderful film.
Sunday, 12 October 2008
Despite what we might want to believe, social revolutions are seldom if ever triggered by a single event, instigated by a single individual, or completed within the space of a single year. Western society had been turning itself inside out since at least 1945, possibly since 1918. But looking back, one might recognise 1968 as the year when western society had to acknowledge that it could never be the same again. Event after event underlined the crisis – the Paris uprisings, Grosvenor Square, the Prague Spring and its brutal suppression, the Chicago Democratic Convention, all with Vietnam providing the soundtrack. And before any of these events happened, Lindsay Anderson was filming if…
It looks like a school story, right up to the shocking climax, but it is transparently allegorical. A boys public school as a microcosm of British culture, of the old order that must now fall. And in two parallel stories we follow two of the boys who are formed by their environment. First there is Jute, a naive new boy, gradually being assimilated and accepted into the culture. And then there’s Mick Travis, a sixth-former whose non-comforming instincts begin with growing a moustache over the summer (but keeping it well hidden from authority until he can shave it off), and are pushed by oppression and persection into taking a bloody revenge on the school and the establishment figures who run it.
Something was certainly in the air in that turbulent year. It was something inextricably linked with youth: a generation no longer prepared to sit and watch the follies of its elders being continued into perpetuity and which actively rose against it. It was futile, of course, if total revolution was its aim, but nothing would ever be the same again.
This is a quite magnificent film, one that captures the 1968 mood perfectly, and it should be ranked up there with the very best. The biggest disgrace is that only very recently has it been available on DVD.
Sunday, 5 October 2008
Long before there was James Bond, in an age when the cinema was still a novelty and the enemy was Kaiser Bill, there was Richard Hannay, suave hero of John Buchan’s riproaring yarns. Buchan may or may not have realised that his brand of muscular adventure was perfect fodder for the film industry but she sure scored a bullseye. All that was needed to make it memorable was the budding talent of Alfred Hitchcock. Now why would somebody want to make a film with slippery Germans in 1935 of all years? Just as the year before Robert Graves had written a Roman epic also full of slippery Germans? Was something going on that not everybody was seeing properly? It’s even updated to the 1930s.
So, a mysterious and very frightened woman takes refuge in Hannay’s flat. Before the sun rises she’s dead with Hannay’s breadknife in her back, and there the fun begins. There are spies and there are establishment figures of decidedly fuzzy loyalty. There’s a dramatic escape by train including an episode in a compartment with an unknown woman, and there’s a dramatic confrontation in a wild and lonely place. A quarter of a century on, Hitchcock will do much the same thing again, in colour and with the inimitable Cary Grant in the lead, as North by North West. It will be a great film but it won’t be half as charming as this one.